Muddle Through Towards Better Web Design

Since the arrival of Pope Benedict XIV at the Twitter scene, I’ve been wondering how many people who don’t know how to use the Internet are still out there in the Western world. But an even more intriguing question is this: how come so many people are proficient at using it? Have they been taught web browsing at school? Did they have to read “Internet For Beginners”? Have they taken any special courses?

The answer of course is that they learnt things on the fly. Our cognitive abilities allow us to instinctively absorb new information, recognize new patterns and adapt to new environments and routines. We don’t need special instructions or conscious decision-making regarding the best approach to knowledge accumulation. We want to do something and we try to do it. We “muddle through”.

I borrow here the language of the web usability guru Steve Krug, and in particular his “Don’t Make me Think” book, considered by many the “bible” of user experience. Muddling through is Krug’s third “fact of life” of real-world Web use, just after scanning and “satisficing”. Below I’m going to prove that muddling through is not just an effective and time-saving approach to information discovery that humans simply opt for but rather it’s the way we live in general. Our minds are conditioned to muddle through. Better web designs are impossible without proper recognition of this fundamental human nature.

How Do We Really Use Websites?

So how many of you read the user guide booklet that came with your new iPhone? What about the “Convention Used in This Book” page in your latest educational book? Mu guess is: not many. The same is true for the way we use websites. Everyone’s busy, everyone’s just trying to figure out how to get to a particular place and doing anything else seems like a waste of time. Now the funny thing is that everyone’s got their own way of doing things. Even when it comes to a standard process such as navigating a website, some people will follow the links in the main navigation, while others will use the search button or start scanning paragraphs for clues.

One important implication of this tendency to muddle through is that people will often use websites in unexpected ways. Designers sometime envisage a perfect way of completing a particular process, e.g. you click on this link, you fill the form, you browse the available options and choose one as indicated in the instructions displayed to you left, you click the big “submit” button, etc. But in practice there are many ways to browse a website, use a web application, or even fill a contact form (“should I put my phone in the specially designated field or attach it in the body of the message like I always do?”). As a result, when offered a detailed record of how websites are actually used, some designers might think “who on Earth would let those monkeys anywhere near a computer?” Such attitude ignores of course that web users are not trying to figure out what the brilliant designer had in mind when creating the interface. They just want to get what they came for. If they have muddled through something and it worked, why shouldn’t they try the same approach next time?

A well quoted example of such interface misconception is Steve Krug’s anecdote about some users typing full URLs (including www.) into the Yahoo search box every time they want to go to a particular website. Krug explains:

If you ask them about it, it becomes clear that some of them think that Yahoo is the Internet, and that this is the way you use it.

Muddling through, being a rather crude approach to cognition, is clearly prone to errors. But many errors, like the one above, don’t have a great impact on the end result. If a website is used on a regular basis, an incomplete understating might slow things down a notch or make the user miss out on alternative options. But if you compare this to a structured approach to web browsing that involves careful review of published instructions and analysis of all potential routes and uses of the interface, then muddling through certainly sounds attractive. As Jeffrey Veen puts it:

[..] we’re much more like motorists behind the wheel of a car in an unfamiliar city. We have a clear destination in mind, and are making split-second decisions while negotiating a confusing new place. And we are doing a task that demands our attention at the same time. No wonder we don’t read. We’re just trying to get done with this nonsense as quickly as possible.

I believe this to be a well accepted proposition in the realm of user experience. However, besides this need for time-optimization there is also an alternative perspective for understanding the muddling through process where the explanation is found in the depths of the human psyche. In such view, we don’t simply choose to muddle through. Muddling through is what makes us who we are.

Psychology of Muddling Through – the Doing Mode

In the field of Psychology, the process of muddling through is recognized as part of the “Doing mode”. Doing mode is the function of the mind that allows rational critical thinking. Doing mode is what allows us to build bridges, send men to space, or write our thesis. It also governs the process of learning from repetition, a crucial ingredient to the success of the muddling through approach.

According to Prof. Mark Williams from Oxford University, Doing mode usually begins with recognition of a gap between our perceived current state and some alternative state that we would prefer to be in. In the context of the Web, this could be as simple as “I sit here bored to death; I would rather be watching a video of a skateboarder hurting himself”. This perceived gap triggers an automatic pattern of mind activity, which sole aim to bring us closer the desired state.

Doing mode is responsible for analysing, planning, comparing, judging, discriminating, etc. What might be less obvious to some readers (especially those who never practiced meditation) is that these processes are usually instantaneous and unconscious. In the West, thinking is often considered a domain of consciousness. This is not true, however. Many people would be ready to claim thoughts as their own. But when asked where their thoughts came from, most would be left bemused. Thoughts arise spontaneously. In a state of concentration the trend of thought can generally be directed towards a specific subject but the arising of thoughts seems as if mental phenomena had a life of their own.

What I’m getting at is that Doing mode, and hence muddling through, is like an automatic pilot. We don’t choose to do it, we just do it. In some sense Doing mode can be thought of as an elaborate survival mechanism. The existence of a desired state usually leaves us little room for considering why such state is desired or what the optimal way of achieving it is. Doing mode forces us to strive towards the goal, regardless of whether it was chosen in a sober, conscious state of mind or not. In fact, the goal does not even have to be “real”. It can be based on an ephemeral emotion that develops into a mood (interestingly this is how stress arises – the mind considers a negative feeling to be a problem, a gap that must be overcome, triggering an array of memories, thoughts, and impulses that have a similar emotional hue in order to find a “solution”). This helps explain why when feeling a little down or lonely we can end up spending hours surfing for pictures of cats playing piano without even noticing.

Intuitive Web Design

Doing mode is not something designers need to fight against (although see “Conclusion” below for a brief mention of an alternative mode). Instead, designers need to try capture this somewhat primitive mind activity by allowing it to freely channel towards a positive outcome (finding information, buying products online, leaving a feedback, etc.).

If we compare web design to building a house, it is often too tempting for an architect to assume the house being used by a perfect gentlemen, who will always politely knock on the door, wipe his shoes on the “Welcome” mat, take of his hat and put it on the designated coat rack, and head to the dining room, never stepping outside the corridor carpet. The real user of the house, however, turns out to be a caveman who breaks the kitchen window with his club to get in, and rummages through the garbage bin in search for food.

The role of the architect is not to discriminate between the gentleman and the caveman and label one as “right” and the other as “wrong” or “crazy”. The architect should instead recognize the nature of the house’s users. If putting a gate in the kitchen will benefit the users, then that’s what needs to be done. Decorating the dining room is not the priority.

In web design the importance of muddling through is most commonly recognized in navigation, although the approach can be observed in a much wider range of web interactions. The first step is of course to recognize that navigating a website is very different from navigating a physical space, such as a building. When we’re online, it’s not immediately clear where we are and where we are heading towards. We cannot even tell how big the website is!

When building websites, our first task should be to mitigate those obvious shortcomings of the Web, which might otherwise hinder the user’s instinctive drive. Faced with a Doing mode, long, written instructions usually become redundant. A better solution is to follow conventions, which can come from other websites and computer applications (e.g. an arrow next to drop down menus or putting a “careers” link in the footer) or the real world (e.g. 3D-looking buttons). Anything that aids scanning and immediate recognition of the information structure is also a huge plus. In general, to create an intuitive design we need to stop thinking about writing paragraphs to fill empty space and focus instead on building a proper infrastructure, putting up traffic signs, etc.

Operating in a very dynamic environment, websites often try to introduce new ideas and new ways of interacting with the user. These ideas might require a new perspective in order to be used effectively, and thus the error-prone muddling through process can lead to confusion and misuse of the service. This does not, however, imply that we should build barricades to prevent people from experimentally figuring things out. We just need to make sure that the user is most likely to muddle through along a path that maximizes the benefits from learning-by-doing, encourages further exploration, and enhances the user’s understanding of the new service, its functionality, and scope.

There is a whole arsenal of potential solutions out there that could be leveraged to channel user’s instincts. A more recent idea in web usability, progressive reduction, is a great example of just how much intelligence interfaces can acquire. Of course, every website faces its own set of challenges, and the point of this article is merely to emphasise the importance of the muddling through process. It may not be the way we would like people to use the web but it is the way they really use it. We must face this fact.


Muddling through is not a niche approach to using the Web. It is the human way of using the Web and is true even for the most web-savvy people (or especially for web-savvy people). The reason why the process often doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves is because we are not aware of it. The fact that it’s subconscious does not mean it cannot be harnessed. It does, however, require thorough analysis of our emotional and behavioural tendencies in order for it to be helpful in building smarter web interfaces.

As most things in nature, Doing mode has its opposing force. In addition to the Doing mode, human mind can also operate in a state of awareness and directed attention that is devoid of judgment, allowing us to directly experience the present moment. Psychologists have labelled this state “Being mode”. Though not ideal for navigation, we might prefer users to be in a Being mode when faced with a new idea that would be discarded in the Doing mode due to biased views. In such a scenario, we might want to shake the user out of his day-dreaming mode and become awake and alert, seeing things with a clearly comprehensive mind and inviting the user to re-examine his own condition.

Those of you familiar with Buddhism or a similar philosophy might already know what I’m talking about. This is certainly not the sort of idea that would be regularly echoed in mainstream discussions. For the sake of brevity I’ll leave the Reader with just this enigmatic introduction to the Being mode (the state of awareness). In the near feature I will write an article explaining this alternative way of engaging audience with deserving depth and detail. In the meantime stay tuned for the upcoming article publications on our blog.